Time to move on

By all reckoning, this has been a dramatic year. With two more months to go, it has already shattered a number of assumptions about global politics and its emerging trend lines. For Indian foreign policy, this year has been full of vexing challenges as well and it has forced Indian policy makers to make some decisive shifts in their engagement with the outside world, in particular where it concerns China.

Chinese aggression has made it impossible for New Delhi to continue with its usual ‘engagement where possible’ refrain, because there are hardly any areas where engagement seems possible between the two Asian neighbours. From trade and technology and Taiwan and Tibet, every aspect of their bilateral engagement seems to be in play at the moment.

In the last few weeks itself, we have seen the Quadrilateral security grouping comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India emerge out of irrelevance into something concrete. By finally inviting Australia to the Malabar exercises, there’s now an attempt to give the so-called Quad a military quotient.

India is reportedly thinking of a trade deal with Taiwan to give ballast to a relationship which has a lot of potential. And India’s two-plus-two ministerial dialogue with the US saw the two nations signing the long-pending Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), which allows for the sharing of high-end military technology, logistics and geospatial maps.

India’s past diffidence in making certain foreign policy choices is rapidly giving way to greater readiness to acknowledge the need for a radical shift in thinking about internal capability enhancement by leveraging external partnerships. But one aspect which remains unchanged is the Indian strategic establishment’s aversion to the term alliance. We’re repeatedly told India doesn’t do alliances; that it’s not in Indian DNA to enter into such relationships.

From the heyday of non-alignment to the present day possibilities of multi-alignment, this idea that alliances are inherently bad has been a constant in our mainstream strategic thinking. If this idea were just about our propensity to consume ourselves with endless debates, it wouldn’t have mattered. But when this seeming consensus starts constraining our strategic options and we start confusing ends and means, it needs to be challenged.

But despite our domestic political debates getting highly polarised, this is one topic on which no political party worth its salt is willing to bell the cat. Whether we need to enter into any alliances is not the point. Perhaps, Indian interests demand that we don’t need any alliance relationships. But to preclude the possibility altogether just because some confusing notion of “strategic autonomy” hobbles our thinking is downright dangerous, if not idiotic.

Compare this to the very forthright statement from one of our closest partners, Russia. Asked about a hypothetical Russian-Chinese military alliance recently, President Vladimir Putin was categorical: “We [Russians] don’t need it, but, theoretically, it’s quite possible to imagine it.” Moscow’s military ties with Beijing could someday deepen further, Putin added, underlining: “The time will show how it will develop … we won’t exclude it.”

Now, imagine an Indian prime minister making such a remark about a hypothetical military alliance. All hell would break loose in the country and tomes would be written about how that PM is willing to surrender the nation’s sovereignty. Ideological discourse about alliances matter more to us than any operational reality on the ground. As a result our adversaries find it easy to play with our minds. It’s not without reason that Chinese policy makers and their mouthpieces continue to ask India to maintain distance from the US even as China continues to work against Indian interests at every level.

It’s not that India has been averse to building partnerships. Structural realities in the international and regional order have always forced choices upon India to build coalitions much like it has on other nations. For all the claims of Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai before 1962, New Delhi was forced to seek help from the US during the war. Likewise, it was the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation of 1971 that allowed New Delhi to successfully prosecute the war leading to the creation of Bangladesh. But it all happened in the name of non-alignment.

In recent years, despite the rise of China bringing New Delhi closer to Washington, it has been a matter of faith that there’s absolutely no possibility of India ever entering into an alliance relationship with the US. It can sign the civil nuclear pact, it can sign foundational defence agreements, it can converge on the Indo-Pacific but it won’t ever lead to an alliance relationship. All this merely to underline that such an alliance would lead to India losing its much vaunted strategic autonomy.

India’s views about partnerships have indeed evolved in recent years. A fluid global environment has opened up possibilities for India to enter into ‘issue based coalitions’. But when confronted with serious national security threats, such coalitions of the willing are inherently constrained.

It’s always preferable for nations to fight their own battles but if it can get support from other like-minded nations, it enhances the confidence of that nation in managing its national security priorities much more effectively. For its own reasons, India may indeed decide that alliances are not for it. But ruling them out completely from the policy matrix is a mistake that no serious nation should ever make. After all, alliances and partnerships are not an end in themselves; for a responsible nation, they are a means to a larger end – security and prosperity of its citizens.

This commentary originally published in The Times of India

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